12 June 2023

Are you full of God’s grace and power?

Captain Paul Williams

Captain Paul Williams considers the example of Stephen, who followed Jesus to the end.

Key text

I believe that the lyrics of John Gowans’ song ‘To Be Like Jesus’ (SASB 328) encapsulate the essence of Salvationism. They emphasise the work of the Holy Spirit in making us like Jesus and we rightly conceive this as a positive transformation.

Stephen, one of seven men chosen by the apostles to serve as a deacon and to attend to the needs of the early Christian community, is described as ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 6:5). He was certainly well engaged on the path to Christlikeness.

Stephen’s short ministry and death remind us of Jesus’ ministry and suffering. In Acts, Luke reminds us that following Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can come at a cost too.

Pause and reflect

  • Are we becoming more like Christ?
  • Do we think others can see this work of transformation?

Stephen’s credentials are re-emphasised as ‘a man full of God’s grace and power’ (v8) – the power of the Holy Spirit. After Jesus’ ascension, the Spirit is released and his indwelling in the lives of the early Christians becomes a determining characteristic of their nascent community (see Acts 4:33).

The Holy Spirit works in and through the lives of followers of Jesus and is evidenced by signs and wonders (see Acts 2:43 and 5:12). Stephen is no exception (see 6:8).

From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, particularly as told in Luke’s Gospel, the Spirit is the power that drives Jesus forward (see Luke 4:1). Throughout Luke and Acts, the Holy Spirit is the driving force of God’s new revelation in the world.

Pause and reflect

  • Stephen is described as ‘a man full of God’s grace and power’. How does this challenge your understanding of what it means to be a faithful Christian?
Photo shows someone carrying a cross through a field.

Acts 7:56

‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’

Read Acts 7

The parallels between Stephen and Jesus continue as the Holy Spirit’s work causes opposition to arise from members of a synagogue. It’s interesting to note that the author of Acts gives us quite a lot of detail about the ethnic background of Stephen’s opponents. The synagogue of the Freedmen refers to libertini – Jews of Italian origin. Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia are also specified. These are not pointless details; they point to a broadening of the opposition against the early Church. Whereas Jesus faced opposition from the leaders of the Temple in Jerusalem, opposition to the first Christians seems to be spreading. Regardless of this, Stephen’s opponents don’t seem to be able to get the upper hand over him, especially when it comes to debating.

The Holy Spirit gives Stephen the wisdom he needs to respond to the antagonism of his opponents. You could say that this action of the Holy Spirit provides validation to Jesus’ teaching: ‘When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say’ (Luke 12:11 and 12). Jesus’ instructions are also found in Luke 21:12–15.

Pause and reflect

  • Have you ever found yourself speechless when questioned about your faith?
  • Have you ever been surprised by how you have responded to questions about your faith?

Stephen is brought before the higher authority of the Sanhedrin, where his opponents persuade some others to make false claims about what he had been doing. They mount false accusations of blasphemy and put words in the mouths of false witnesses (see Acts 6:11–13).

Egged-up charges and accusations of blasphemy were, of course, part of Jesus’ trial too. When Pilate cannot find Jesus guilty of anything, his opponents want to force his hand. They charge Jesus with subversion and refusal to pay taxes (see Luke 23:2). Blasphemy is also at the heart of the Jewish leaders’ opposition to Jesus (see Luke 22:67–71).

Faced with the lack of solid ground on which to accuse Stephen, his opponents also turn to stirring up the crowd. It is then that the Holy Spirit manifests himself as Stephen’s appearance is transfigured: ‘All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel’ (Acts 6:15).

This, unsurprisingly perhaps, emboldens Stephen, and he launches his own discourse against his accusers, claiming that they ‘always resist the Holy Spirit’, their ancestors killed the prophets who spoke of ‘the Righteous One’ and now, they have betrayed and murdered him (Acts 7:51 and 52).

Pause and reflect

  • In what way might we be guilty of resisting the Holy Spirit?

Like Jesus, Stephen is sentenced to death. In another Passion parallel, Stephen gives up his spirit and asks for the forgiveness of those who have wronged him (see 7:59 and 60).

Stephen is like Christ to the very end and his death is a stark reminder of the potential cost of following Jesus. Stephen picked up his cross and followed Jesus in a very real way, which ultimately led him to share in Jesus’ death. Following Jesus is costly. If it isn’t, I’m tempted to say that we are not really following him anyway.

Pause and reflect

  • Have you or are you prepared to give up everything to follow Jesus?

Stephen dies, but the Spirit continues to move and Acts 8:1 introduces Saul. At this point, Saul approves of the killing. After a dramatic conversion (see Acts 9:1–19), Saul, now Paul, drives forward the mission of the Church, in the strength and power of the same Holy Spirit.

Pause and reflect

  • In what new direction is the Holy Spirit leading us?

Bible study by

A photo of Paul Williams in Salvation Army uniform

Captain Paul Williams

Corps Officer, Felixstowe

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